Writing,
reading
it sideways
;-)

New study on why focusing on strengths is better than weaknesses
Strengths, not weaknesses are key to growth
By Duncan Austin on Thu, 29 February 2024

It's not like we needed more scientific evidence that focusing on weaknesses is bad for development, but here it is anyway and the orginal study is here for those who like the meaty details.

(Jack, Passarelli, et al 2023) DOI: https://doi.org/10.3389/fnhum.2023.1128209
Many who seek to help, conflate helping with fixing problems

Takeaway quote: "Many who seek to help, conflate helping with fixing problems ... Companies, coaches and managers who want people to change must hold their tongue about what they think needs fixing. Instead, they must put their faith in the individual's intrinsic desire to grow and allow them to direct their own development process. Otherwise, they are likely to hit a wall of psychological resistance."

The study used neuroimaging to evaluate different styles of coaching and shows that the common "fix it" style of coaching that focuses on identifying weaknesses creates a resistance to change and learning.

They contrasted focussing on "ideal self" and "real self". The ideal self is that picture of ourselves that is the sum of our aspirations and desires - we feel inspired when we think about it: "Yes! That!". The real self is how we actually are.

... focusing on people's problems creates a cognitive conflict that inhibits learning and promotes counter-productive effects

The crux of sustained development and growth is getting people to be self-motivated to grow into their ideal self.

They show that trying to do that by focusing on people's problems (real self) creates a cognitive conflict that inhibits learning and promotes counter-productive effects, like less willingness to learn or change, and more wilfulness (versus willingness).

To quote the authors: "Many think the best way to get others-; and themselves-; to change is to use some combination of carrot and stick, for instance by sandwiching a criticism with compliments ... These findings show why it works better to get the individual to focus first and foremost on their dreams and aspirations for the future."

Someone who gets 50% positive and critical feedback is an actively disengaged employee

As the head of ADP Research Marcus Buckingham points out: "Someone who gets 50% positive and critical feedback is the profile of an actively disengaged employee"

I try to apply this by focussing on getting my people to notice what sort of tasks they get into the flow with: what tasks they feel "Yes! That!" about. Each of those is a glimpse of the ideal self, of what that person is uniquely tuned for.

I then let them pick up their own tasks, allowing them steer their workload towards those sorts of tasks, which in turn gives us more insight into their ideal self.

This is so powerful a propellant, that I've have several new joiners comment on how suprised they were to find themselves striving to over-achieve.

The whole team is also involved in planning how we can make the most impact. Some brilliant ideas have come from mid and junior team members which become tasks, which then creates more tasks that feed the ideal selves of the team. And so a positive feedback loop is created, propelling them forwards.

Then we use that to plot a momentum plan for each team member based on what the team needs and their emerging ideal selves, creating a powerful self-motivation.

Getting into the flow also means that our brains are flooded with dopamine and acetylcholine which give energy and promote neural plasticity and accellerate learning and development ... and so the feedback loop accelerates.

I've seen juniors rocket to outperforming mids and seniors in the space of a year and seniors come up with game-changing innovations.

The science works. It's not just a nice idea. It's a powerful tool for growth and development.

People become what your expect of them
An African Farm
By Duncan Austin on Fri, 5 January 2024

Lately, I've been thinking about a chilli farm in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. Although it's not related to technology, it's the thing I'm most proud of in my career.

I used to do Local Economic Development back in South Africa in the 2000s. In 2005, a colleague and friend who is an economic development consultant, called me up asking for help.

He had a development project, funded by the municipality, to help bring two poor communities out of poverty by starting two chilli farms, one on the banks of the Tugela River and the other in the hills of Maphumulo. The first year was a disaster. The crops had failed, everyone was blaming everyone else, it was politically radio-active, and now in the second year the chillies were about to ripen in the next week but they were nowhere near being able to harvest.

It was days away from failing again. Also, the growers were supposed to deliver chopped chillies, but they didn't have the bowl cutter they needed to do that.

"Can you go and meet the growers and see if there's any possible way to save the project? If I go, they might shoot me", he asked.

Who will pay us to water on a public holiday?"

The growers had been given land, given chilli seed for the first year, given mentorship from a farmer, and even a guaranteed market with African Farm, a company set up specifically to help rural growers. Yet it failed. For example, apparently, in the hot week after Christmas, the chilli plants all died because they weren't watered.

"Who will pay us to water on a public holiday?" the growers reportedly said. It was a mess.

A stranger, driving a Toyota, lost in a township

I must admit that I was more than a little nervous to drive into the heart of Sundumbili township in my old Toyota Tazz. A stranger, driving a Toyota, lost in a township, going to meet people who were already upset.

It was in the days before Google Maps, but I managed to find the chilli farm, much to my relief. I could see chillies already ripening. The growers were there: Ernest who spoke for the Tugela farm, and a group of ladies from the Maphumulo farm.

Ernest greeted me with a grin. I'll never forget that grin. He ushered us to a shipping container office that was on site and I started into my prepared pitch.

One of the ladies interrupted me: "Is this you?" she asked, holding up a small piece of paper that she had pulled out of a folder she had. I went over to get a better look, and sure enough, it was a photo of me cut from an article in the local newspaper from several months earlier when I had co-ordinated an agriculture development initiative. I got a glimpse of other article cuttings to do with agriculture in the area in her folder too. I looked around - they had pens and paper and were taking notes. They were taking this seriously.

So why was this failing?

These clearly weren't entitled people looking for an easy payout. They were serious about making this work. I also knew the person who started African Farm. I knew him to be a person of integrity and was there when he set it up. I knew they genuinely wanted to help rural growers. So why was this failing?

I cut my speech short and asked them to go for a walk with me through the fields to have a chat.

"How much are you getting for your chillies?" I asked.

"We don't know. Hopefully R4 per kg."

"You don't know? Who is your contract with? African Farm, a middle man, or the municipality?"

They didn't know. All they knew was that the municipality would collect the chillies and someone would pay them.

This might sound strange, but it's how these things often have to work in rural Zulu areas. There is often a gatekeeper who everything has to go through - it may be the local Nkhosi or the municipality.

No wonder there was confusion. Nothing was clear. Also, it was clear that the growers, as is often the case in these initiatives, weren't being treated like real farmers. They were being treated like a charity.

This was the key issue. For many Zulus, farming is a very low-status occupation, being associated with farm labour. By not being treated as business owners, which farmers are, they were falling into the role of labourers.

I knew we had to fix the project structure, roles, and incentives. And quickly.

I called an urgent meeting with the municipality, the managing director of African Farm, and Ernest to represent the growers so that we could clarify roles and responsibilities. I wanted the growers to be at the table themselves.

Ernest's grin grew

I sat Ernest next to African Farm (I wanted them talking) and they got along great. Straight off the bat, African Farm offered twice what the growers were expecting and the chillies didn't need to be chopped - so no need for the bowl cutter. Ernest's grin grew. African Farm also offered help to teach them how to get the most for their chillis, eg, "Don't take the stems off until the morning you deliver them. This keeps the moisture in and they weigh more, so you get paid by weight".

The municipal rep hardly said anything. He was watching his problems dissolve. Municipalities are great at getting resources unlocked for projects like this, but they're not good at operational tasks, nor do they want to be doing them. As the relationship was worked out between African Farm and the growers, his headache was evaporating.

By the end of the meeting, the only thing on the municipality's plate was to deliver the chillies as the growers didn't have a vehicle. I pulled Ernest aside and urged him to start making a plan now to be able to deliver themselves, as the municipality can't do that forever. He grinned.

African Farm also brought the growers to the bottling factory where the sauces are made. The growers saw their chillies go in, followed the assembly line to the end, and saw the finished bottles of Thai cook-in sources come out.

Larneys buy those!

"We know those sauces! Larneys buy those." - they were part of somthing valuable.

In that week, they made more money than they had the entire previous year. And the next week too. And the week after that.

I called all three parties every Monday for the following months to check how things were going until they all said that I could stop calling - it was going well.

Sometime later the municipality didn't show up to deliver the chillies. But the growers had made a plan and delivered them themselves.

Some years later, due to the pressures the weakening Rand was putting on manufacturing, African Farm and its parent company, Taste Of Thailand, were bought out by a Thai company and moved to Thailand. What happened to the growers? Well, they were still going. They found other markets. They were capable entrepeneurs.

What stands out for me in all this is the importance of how people are treated. If you treat people like they are capable, they almost always will be. No one was trying to mistreat anyone, the motives were all good. But people are people, and people thive the way people thrive.

The growers went from failing to success in one week. African Farm wanted to help rural growers, but they hadn't been able to sit with the people they were helping. They were being treated like any other company. The municipality wanted to make resources available and enable projects like this, but they were lost in the weeds of opperational things they didn't need to be doing.

All I did was restructure the project to remove the things holding each of them back.

The whole thing had been a textbook example of Westrum's pathological culture. After re-aligning the incentives and roles, it went from pathological to generative in a week. Actually, it was that one meeting.

All of the parties involved were perfectly capable. They just needed to be treated like that.

I see companies scratching their heads and wondering why their teams or employees don't perform. I'm convinced that it is almost certainly not the employees. It's the organisational structure. It's how people are treated. Get the principles of a generative organisation right and the rest will follow surprisingly quickly.

Finding the best people
By Duncan Austin on Tue, 4 July 2023

Great teams need good people. But how do we find the right people? Research by Daniel Kahneman shows that many interview processes are about as effective as pulling names from a hat.

I've learned, in my 2.5 decades in the business, that hiring primarily for skills is shortsighted: skills change quickly. Why make long-term hiring decisions based on short-term factors?

Rather, while skills obviously are important, I'm convinced we should be hiring more for long-term traits like aptitude, diligence, intelligence, grit, humility, industriousness etc.

So I introduced a quirky take-home assessment for my interviews. It's fun, has some gotchas, and has lots of room for applicants to shine. It can be done in 4 hours, but I give them 4 or 5 days.

Then in the interview, they walk us through their assessment and we have a discussion. The assessment is really about the interview. While there are specific things we look for, we are also looking for unique treasures. People excel in individual ways.

My job as the interviewer is to uncover how this candidate can shine. I'm a treasure hunter and in each candidate is some treasure. The assessment gives the candidate that room to shine in their unique ways - ways that they may not be aware of. I need to uncover that.

This is how we now hire developers. It gives us a better picture of their skills because it more accurately recreates the actual job environment. It also gives us a much clearer picture of their attitude and aptitude, and it gives the candidate plenty of room to show what they've got.

Someone who is bright, motivated, and hard-working will close any skill gap very quickly if we provide the environment for them to thrive.

I hired a product manager who had no SAAS experience (her background was dairy!). In her interview, she was clearly bright, honest, specific, and hit the nail on the head with her suggestions for our product. I thought she was more impressive than candidates with years of SAAS behind them. She had done her homework and put in the effort. If she could do that without SAAS experience, what would she do once she had it? Turns out, she's a brilliant SAAS PM and her lack of SAAS-specific skills was very short-lived.

Several developer hires were behind other candidates on skills, but are now stars in the company, people I would do whatever I can to keep. They're bright and motivated. If we give them the environment to shine they will shine. Every time.

People aren't machines and excellence isn't one-size-fits-all. People are often not aware of their areas of strength - it comes so naturally to them that they don't know it's a thing. Our hiring process needs to reflect this reality. It's good for the candidates and it's good for the business.

Making Teams Work
Measuring: Impact 360
By Duncan Austin on Thu, 29 June 2023

Making Teams Work

IntroThe ScienceCollective Intelligence› Measuring: Impact 360

We know that teams can be greater than the sum of their parts (Collective Intelligence) and that much of what makes individuals highly performant is the environment they work in. We also know what those factors are. But how do we know if we have them, and how do we know who the drivers are?

Peter Coppinger, Teamwork.com CEO, told me about a manager at a large software company who had to let her lowest performer go, only to have the team collapse after he left. That person was holding the team together and lifting everyone else up. How can we know who those people are? This has been my task.

From the outset, I settled on real-world impact as the thing to measure - not abstract concepts. Abstract concepts would mean people rating people (Joe is a 2/5 on problem-solving, 3/5 on teamwork etc). There are mountains of research that person-rating-person is always bad data (it's called the idiosyncratic rater effect). Also, what does it matter if Joe is a 5/5 at problem-solving if he doesn't have much impact on problem-solving in the team?

What people are good reporters of is their reaction to things. This is what we use for measuring impact.

Instead of rating Joe on problem-solving, they answer a real-world-impact statement: "I go to Joe when I have a difficult problem to solve". That is accurate. They do or they don't. It also removes the stigma pressure to give non-accurate results - I'm not saying that Joe is bad at problem-solving, just that I don't go to him. That could be because we don't have much contact, or that my sort of problems aren't the sort that he could help with, etc.

The impact statements for my team are:

  • I go to them when I need extraordinary results
  • I choose to work with them as much as I possibly can
  • I believe they have a skill-set that is very difficult to replace
  • What skill is that?
  • I choose to go to them when I have a problem that I'm struggling with
  • I know that I can rely on what they say
  • I have learned a lot from them, and that has helped me in my work
  • They unblock me in my work
  • When there are chores to be done, I know that they will pull their weight
  • I am always confident when they take initiative to drive solutions forward
  • Apart from the above, I also think they are excellent in this area
  • I believe that they have an attitude problem that needs to be addressed immediately
  • What is that problem?

The one about chores tells me if entitlement is creeping into the team. Also, if people get into the flow at some point each day, then chores should be easy. If this is low, something is wrong. This is the canary in our coal mine.

Before I do an Impact 360, I hypothesise about what I expect. Eg, I don't expect people to go to juniors with difficult problems, or to be confident when they drive a solution.

The objective isn't for everyone to score high in everything. It's for us to understand what is driving the team in the real world.

So far, our results indicate that people are reporting accurately.

The results indicate that our Impact 360s are measuring something real. Teams that have isolated parts or people in very different timezones show less impact across those divides: People aren't just giving generous reviews.

We have a senior developer who scored high on everything, which should mean that everyone else performs higher when he is there. He went on leave for a week so we planned our sprint to only reduce by the work he would get through. We should see a lot of work carried over to the next sprint because everyone else would lose capacity. And we did. The impact we measured in his Impact 360 was accurate.

There have also been surprises. Some juniors measured highly in "I am always confident when they take the initiative to drive solutions forward". We looked into it, and sure enough, they had taken the initiative and did it reliably. It also means that the seniors are doing a good job at mentoring, which I should have expected if the seniors are having such a high impact across the measures. Now I understand my team better.

A big surprise was that designers in the team also score high on "I go to them when I have a difficult problem" and "They regularly unblock me in my work". What? We dove into it and, yes, designers regularly jump on calls with developers or QA and that unblocks them or helps them solve problems. Designers helped our api dev solve api issues! This changes my expectations of the value designers bring to the team.

It also changed how we understood the team: Turns out, we're not primarily an engineering team, we're a product team and the issues we solve are primarily cross-functional product issues rather than engineering issues.

So now we're making changes to how we work. We're starting a team "Start-up" channel and having "Start-up" round-tables where we pursue cross-discipline pollination. Our first one was at hashtag#TeamworkGC23 and there are some game-changing initiatives that came out of it. (Be afraid competitors, be very afraid).

Our Impact 360's gave us insights into the team that have allowed us to shift up several gears and inject new vigour.

Bees have brains the size of a grain of sand, yet they can collectively make complex decisions like finding the ideal location for a new hive. The secret lies in how they work together. The hive is far more intelligent than sum of the individuals.

We do something similar in our teams. We have bright people and we can amplify that by paying attention to the science of how people and groups thrive. Measuring those dynamics lets us be targeted in fine-tuning them to compete with competitors that have more funding.

Using our teams effectually is far more powerful than funding. It's good for the company and for our people.

Making Teams Work
Collective Intelligence
By Duncan Austin on Sat, 24 June 2023

Making Teams Work

IntroThe Science› Collective IntelligenceMeasuring: Impact 360

Studies in collective intelligence have played an important part in our initiative to make teams work. Collective intelligence (CI) is what makes groups better or worse than the sum of the individuals in the group.

It turns out that the IQs of the people in the team only weakly correlate to the team's CI. What makes far more difference is the level of empathy in the group, how much communication there is, and how distributed that communication is.

Bees have brains the size of a grain of sand, yet they can collectively make complex decisions like finding the ideal location for a new hive.

For example, bees have brains the size of a grain of sand, yet they can collectively make complex decisions like finding the ideal location for a new hive. The secret lies in how they work together. The hive is far more intelligent than sum of the individuals.

Teams that have little communication or where communication goes through one or two people have lower CI than teams where everyone communicates freely with everyone else.

Airline flight crews know this well. They pay careful attention to the science of how groups work most effectively together, for obvious reasons. A crucial aspect of flight crews is Crew Resource Management (CRM). Good CRM has everyone knowing what their task is and focusing on that but at the same time there is constant communication. No one is "the boss" or "the expert". Everyone speaks up and contributes, paying attention to their own possible blind spots.

Poor CRM, where the captain acts as the boss, where the others are intimidated or afraid to speak up, or where the captain constantly criticises the less senior members, has actually crashed passenger planes all on its own, even when there was nothing wrong with the plane. Conversely, when flight crews have saved a plane that seemed impossible to save, it comes down to excellent CRM.

We discovered, by accident, that having the team swarm on a feature amplifies the performance of the team dramatically. When my team started we were very small and had to hire in half the team. To make sure that we at least got the most important features done while we filled out the team, we decided to have the whole team swarm on the most important feature. We were surprised at how fast that went and at how few bugs came up in QA. So we continued doing that.

Two quarters later another team tried it as well. They were expecting to have around 300 bugs come up in QA. They flew through the feature and had only around 30 bugs in QA. The difference was so dramatic that they also adopted swarming.

Apart from a buzz of task-related communication, swarming also means that tasks are highly interdependent and that there is high task visibility. These are the two main factors that reduce social loafing and free-loading, which helps explain why new team members are surprised at how motivated they feel.

We also want to be able to measure this. What exactly is going on? Why does it work?

Answering these dynamics is what I and some other leads have been trying to figure out. Using psychometric principles, we've developed an Impact 360 to measure the real-world impact of each person on the team. This tells us what is working, why, and how we can get better.

Next: Measuring: Impact 360

Making Teams Work
The Science
By Duncan Austin on Mon, 19 June 2023

Making Teams Work

Intro› The ScienceCollective IntelligenceMeasuring: Impact 360

Following on from my previous post about the team performance initiative I've had the privilege to dive into here at Teamwork.com, I'd like to touch briefly on some of the science that has gone into it.

This broadly fell into three fields - individual performance, collective intelligence, and neuroscience.

Engagement seems to be the main driver of personal performance. In this context, engagement involves energy, enthusiasm, and focused effort (Grundam & Saks, 2011). Gallup and APD GLOBAL RESEARCH have well-validated scales to measure engagement that predict future performance. In both scales, the item that most predicts high performance is that the person gets to use their strengths at some point every day. They get to do something they love every day. Something that gives them energy.

Neuroscience explains where that energy comes from. Dopamine is the neurochemical of motivation. It keeps us on the right path and pushes us to get better at it. When we're doing something we love and have done well, we get a dopamine spike. Dopamine is the precursor molecule to adrenalin. Adrenaline = energy.

Another key neurochemical involved in flow-state is acetylcholine, which is a main ingredient in focus, and also works with adrenaline. When we focus, as in a flow state, it marks the neurons being used for strengthening and connecting later on. This means we learn faster.

Dopamine also strengthens neurons and makes new connections. When we get the dopamine spike from achieving something worthwhile, dopamine reinforces the neural structures that led to that achievement in reverse order. This is how we get better at achieving, and how we learn. Conversely, constantly pointing out faults is basically sending the message "no" and we're not wired to reinforce mistakes. Constant criticism kills learning.

This is why the people at the top of their fields manage to get into the flow at some point in each day.

There are some simple things we have done to facilitate this. We have 1 to 1s every week and in the 1 to 1s I ask the team member about tasks that they did in the last week where they felt energised. Be specific.

Then, instead of micromanaging, I give people the freedom to pick up tasks themselves. Give them a good degree of autonomy for how they do them. By letting them manage their workload, they are more likely to get into the flow.

What I'm asking them to do is to find the unique shape of their maximum impact. A side-effect we've discovered is that people feel a compulsion to achieve and have a maximum impact. This has been particularly noticeable with newcomers to the team, some of whom have expressed their surprise at how strong this effect has been, kind of like "What's happening to me?".

Next: Collective Intelligence

Making Teams Work
Intro
By Duncan Austin on Wed, 14 June 2023

Making Teams Work

› IntroThe ScienceCollective IntelligenceMeasuring: Impact 360

For any company, it should be a high priority to make our teams work. But, to do that we need to understand what drives high performance in teams and how to measure it.

I've been given the space to investigate and experiment with this. To start with, I needed to study the science of performance, work out how to implement it in the real world, and then figure out how to measure it fairly accurately.

The science seems to be pretty clear, both at the level of the individual and at the level of the team. Broadly, individuals thrive and are most productive when they have energy, and energy comes from focus and achievement (ie, getting into the flow); and getting into the flow comes from doing what we love. Groups thrive and are most productive when everyone knows what they need to do, trusts their peers, and has a lot of frequent, distributed communication.

Different people will be energised by different things, and it's my job as a manager to help them discover what those things are and how to best use them to achieve what we need to achieve.

For the group, I need to keep the goal clearly visible and structure the group so that the buzz of communication enhances collective intelligence.

If you can't measure it, you don't know if you need it and you don't know if you've got it

While we've been experimenting with ways to do this, it's also vital that we can measure the results. We need to know that the things we do improve the dynamics in the team in a way that boosts performance. As researcher Marcus Buckingham says - "If you can't measure it, you don't know if you need it and you don't know if you've got it".

Part of what I've been focusing on in the last 3 quarters is how to measure these productive dynamics. Our initial results look promising, ie, that they do measure something real, and that translates into higher team performance.

We've come up with a series of impact statements that each person in the team answers about each other person. They are not asked to rate each other, which would fall prey to the idiosyncratic rater effect (that people are not accurate raters of each other). Rather, impact statements measure how much impact each person has had on the others' work. Such an impact is valuable to the company.

Some examples are:

"This person regularly unblocks me in my work"

"I am always confident when this person takes the initiative to drive a solution forward"

"I go to this person when I have a difficult problem to solve"

... etc

This gives us a matrix of how each person impacts the rest of the team, over and above the actual work that they output. If this is accurate, it will give valuable insights into the real value of each employee and into what is actually going on in the team.

The results have been very interesting and the initial indications are that they do measure something real. In my team, we've gained valuable insights and found ways to make them work better.

It's been great to be able to essentially debug the dynamics in the team and focus them in the most productive way we can while allowing people to craft their own best impact.

Next: The Science